On Thursday, November 15, Riverdale, Westchester and the surrounding areas were affected by an early, winter-like storm that seemed to catch everyone off guard. Similar to most other local schools, SAR continued with its lower school dismissal on a regular schedule, canceling all activities after 4:30. The earliest buses left school on time, only to sit in upwards of four hours of traffic before reaching students’ homes. At the same time, hundreds of students and faculty members were stranded at both the academy and high school campuses. Many late-dismissal school buses never arrived. Cars without four-wheel drive were unable to maneuver the steep 254th Street hill. Many felt safer to stay put than to brave the mounting traffic nightmare.
With so many stranded in the academy building, the business office became a command center. One section dealt with the status of the 3:15 buses of nursery and lower grade students, communicating with the parents of these children who had already left the campus. Another group was assigned to manage the logistics of how the hundreds of remaining students were getting home. Other staff supervised the children in the building.
“The outpouring of chesed from our staff and parents was truly inspiring,” stated Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, principal of SAR Academy. “Our security guards pushed cars to safety. Our kitchen manager walked back to make pizza. Our phys ed staff kept kids calm and entertained. Our parents who were able to get around came to shuttle kids and teachers around Riverdale and offered their homes to families who could not get over the bridge.”
Zeva Gorodischer, sixth-grade student, explained, “I waited at the academy until 6:30. It then took 30 minutes to leave the driveway. However, we actually couldn’t get up the hill. So we ended up at an SAR family’s home across the street until around 8:00.” Seeing the security guards and teachers get behind the car to help push it out of the driveway without thinking twice, and the school neighbors who took them in and fed them, made her feel like she was part of an amazing community. Zeva made it back to White Plains at 11 p.m. “having eventually taken an Uber SUV from Riverdale with an SAR teacher from our community.”
Ari, Alyssa and Ben Halpert were also stranded at school. Third-grader Alyssa described passing the time by using “the smartboard in second grade and we played school,” while fifth-grade brother, Ari, and kindergarten brother, Ben, were in the gym playing sports. Alyssa summarized the experience, “The buses got stuck, a lot of people were helping them and you should always help people when that happens.” The Halperts returned to New Rochelle around 11 p.m.
A few blocks away, SAR High School was having its own difficulties with dismissal. At 4:30 p.m., the Scarsdale bus loaded with students caught fire. Noa and Perri, two daughters of White Plains mother Avigyle Gorodischer, were on the bus. Avigyle explained, “The entire high school was evacuated. My girls went to the Verizon store because they knew the fire drill instructions are to go to Riverdale Ave.” Eventually, the Gorodischer sisters boarded the New Rochelle bus at 7 p.m. but did not actually leave Riverdale for another hour and were dropped off at the Young Israel of White Plains at 9:30 p.m. Noa appreciated that “everyone was quick to help out. Staff and students were helping each other and became very aware of each other’s needs.”
On Monday, November 19, Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, principal, wrote: “I wanted to share with you a special moment we experienced today in the high school. This morning, immediately following Shacharit, we gathered together as a school community to recite birkhat hagomel—the bracha one recites upon surviving a harrowing event. I spoke about how our tefillah encourages us to respond to both extreme events and the everyday with hakarat hatov (thankfulness) to Hashem. As a school community, we have been deeply moved by the countless acts of chesed performed by students, faculty and families in the wake of the bus fire and Thursday’s challenging journey home. These include students who offered their notes to those who lost theirs in the fire, faculty who helped ensure everyone who could not make it home had a place to sleep and families who opened their homes to large numbers of students. We are so proud of our entire school community for coming together to support each other with displays of courage, empathy and chesed.”
These acts of chesed were not limited to the SAR campuses. One SAR bus, which primarily serves nursery students, was disabled on a hilly road in front of one student’s home. The bus driver called every parent of the remaining students, informed them of her location and asked permission to take the remaining students inside. The bus driver explained, “When they are with me, they are my children.”
Jenny Horowitz, physical education director at SAR Academy, noted, “We should be thankful for all the teachers, administrators, maintenance workers, emergency workers, good Samaritans, hosts of unexpected guests and everyone who just realized that it takes a village to get through a challenge. An important lesson we could recognize in our daily lives from this epic storm is that it did not matter what background, religion or politics you believe in that night, strangers were pushing strangers’ cars, housing each other, giving rides, the list is endless. People helping people just…because. We teach our children over and over again to do chesed, but there is no greater lesson for our children than when they see so many acts of chesed revealed simultaneously in a crisis.”
By Judy Berger